How to write well, inspired by Richard Bausch and Shania Twain

Can good writing be taught?

I don’t think so.

But I do think good writing can be learned.

Just like singing.

A couple of weeks ago, I read an essay in The Atlantic’s fiction supplement about the silliness of how-to manuals for writing while I watched Shania Twain mentor American Idol contestants.

Not surprisingly, the essay got me thinking. Very surprisingly, so did Shania Twain.

Richard Bausch said,

If you really want to learn how to write [then] read…One doesn’t write out of some intellectual plan or strategy; one writes from a kind of beautiful necessity born of the reading of thousands of good stories…

Shania said something to the effect of, “To make it, you can’t just be a great voice, you have to feel it.”

Let’s ignore for a moment how the market rewards timely topics and strong platforms. Those who are great writers, great storytellers, are more than marketing.

And learning to write, like learning to sing, begins with more than talent and desire, more than “a great voice.” It begins with “feeling it.” It begins with a deep, consuming love for the source material.

So, the first and most important step to becoming a good writer is immersion.

Wallow in stories and language, in song and melody. Luxuriate. Find what you love, what you hate, what bores you to tears. Read it all and keep reading. I agree with Bausch. Writers never really move on from this step. Reading is the foundation for writing. Reading is writing’s raison d’être.

Second, practice.

Write to sound just like those who swept you away with their tales, or phrasing, or high notes. Write to sound nothing like them. Write everything, from recipes to essays, novellas to poems. Realize that craft and artistry take hours, days and years of practice.

Third, hone your voice.

Make each word and rhythm and story your own. Riff a little. Or a lot.

Fourth, embrace your constructive critics.

They will tell you what you need to hear, even when it hurts. Peers, judges, readers, editors…even, maybe, one or two really good books about reading and writing. Listen to the advice that resonates, drop the rest of it. Then go back to the first three steps.

Finally, perform.

Let yourself feel it. Read it back. Does the rhythm and the story flow? Does it make your audience feel it, too? Put your writing into a reader’s hands and see what happens.

Most likely, a writer’s reward won’t be money or fame. The reward will be knowing your writing is part of the backbone, the foundation. Your work is there, in a reader’s library, along with Shakespeare, waiting to sweep someone away.

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I work as an editor at Harlequin, but the posts on this site are all mine and don’t represent my employer's positions, strategies or opinions.
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